Zombies Invade Teton County

Since the market collapse, suburban sprawl in Idaho’s majestic Teton County has ground to a halt as thousands of unfinished housing developments stand vacant.

| July/August 2012

Matt Hail grew up in sweltering metropolitan Phoenix and spent 11 years selling women’s clothing. Like many other people, he imagined changing his life by moving to some mountain valley surrounded by snow-crested peaks. In 2003, he became a real estate developer near a major resort town, Jackson, Wyoming. He started small by building a house in Alpine, a Jackson suburb. Then he leveraged his equity to make a down payment on 40 acres on the other side of a busy mountain pass, in Idaho’s Teton County.

The towering arrowhead peaks of Grand Teton National Park dominate Teton County’s rural landscape, often given a heavenly alpenglow by the late-afternoon sunlight. In 2003, nearly 200,000 acres, amounting to 67 percent of the county, was undeveloped farmland or otherwise privately owned.

Even better, Teton County’s government was gung-ho for development. And the national real estate boom was finally reaching attractive rural settings. A grand development scheme launched in 2000 signaled the county’s new direction: The Teton Springs Golf and Casting Club aimed to build 600 residential units, a golf course, tennis courts, a swimming pool, hotel, shops and restaurants on 774 acres.

Even before scraping out roads, Hail sold three of his 14 lots. In return, he gained $2.9 million. Acquiring bank loans was easy. So was getting the additional approvals from the county government. In 2007, he paid $2.2 million for another 144 acres. He built a nice rustic barn-style home for himself, next to a pond in one of his developments, and moved in during 2008. Hail was $3.3 million in debt, but still optimistic.

Many farmers who had struggled for decades to grow potatoes or other crops in a hostile climate also thought their dreams had come true. Suddenly they could sell their land for many thousands of dollars per acre. During the 2000s, Teton County became one of the West’s fastest-growing rural communities.

Today, several years into the nationwide recession and housing bust, Teton County is a real estate disaster, probably the worst in the rural West. There are thousands of acres of incomplete subdivisions—nicknamed “zombies” because they look partially or totally dead. About 7,200 lots that were approved and mapped out, or platted, still stand vacant. Many of these vacant lots are marooned without good roads and utilities. The few that are occupied have the air of sheltering castaways.